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Story Behind the Story: The Clinton Myth

Story Behind the Story: The Clinton Myth
By Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen
The Politico

Friday 21 March 2008

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.

Her own campaign acknowledges there is no way that she will finish ahead in pledged delegates. That means the only way she wins is if Democratic superdelegates are ready to risk a backlash of historic proportions from the party's most reliable constituency.

Unless Clinton is able to at least win the primary popular vote - which also would take nothing less than an electoral miracle - and use that achievement to pressure superdelegates, she has only one scenario for victory. An African-American opponent and his backers would be told that, even though he won the contest with voters, the prize is going to someone else.

People who think that scenario is even remotely likely are living on another planet.

As it happens, many people inside Clinton's campaign live right here on Earth. One important Clinton adviser estimated to Politico privately that she has no more than a 10 percent chance of winning her race against Barack Obama, an appraisal that was echoed by other operatives.

In other words: The notion of the Democratic contest being a dramatic cliffhanger is a game of make-believe.

The real question is why so many people are playing. The answer has more to do with media psychology than with practical politics.

Journalists have become partners with the Clinton campaign in pretending that the contest is closer than it really is. Most coverage breathlessly portrays the race as a down-to-the-wire sprint between two well-matched candidates, one only slightly better situated than the other to win in August at the national convention in Denver.

One reason is fear of embarrassment. In its zeal to avoid predictive reporting of the sort that embarrassed journalists in New Hampshire, the media - including Politico - have tended to avoid zeroing in on the tough math Clinton faces.

Avoiding predictions based on polls even before voters cast their ballots is wise policy. But that's not the same as drawing sober and well-grounded conclusions about the current state of a race after millions of voters have registered their preferences.

The antidote to last winter's flawed predictions is not to promote a misleading narrative based on the desired but unlikely story line of one candidate.

There are other forces also working to preserve the notion of a contest that is still up for grabs.

One important, if subliminal, reason is self-interest. Reporters and editors love a close race - it's more fun and it's good for business.

The media are also enamored of the almost mystical ability of the Clintons to work their way out of tight jams, as they have done for 16 years at the national level. That explains why some reporters are inclined to believe the Clinton campaign when it talks about how she's going to win on the third ballot at the Democratic National Convention in August.

That's certainly possible - and, to be clear, we'd love to see the race last that long - but it's folly to write about this as if it is likely.

It's also hard to overstate the role the talented Clinton camp plays in shaping the campaign narrative, first by subtly lowering the bar for the performance necessary to remain in the race, and then by keeping the focus on Obama's relationships with a political fixer and a controversial pastor in Illinois.

But even some of Clinton's own advisers now concede that she cannot win unless Obama is hit by a political meteor. Something that merely undermines him won't be enough. It would have to be some development that essentially disqualifies him.

Simple number-crunching has shown the long odds against Clinton for some time.

In the latest Associated Press delegate count, Obama leads with 1,406 pledged delegates to Clinton's 1,249. Obama's lead is likely to grow, as it did with county conventions last weekend in Iowa, as later rounds of delegates are apportioned from caucuses he has already won.

The Democratic Party has 794 superdelegates, the party insiders who get to vote on the nomination in addition to the delegates chosen by voters. According to Politico's latest tally, Clinton has 250 and Obama has 212. That means 261 are uncommitted, and 71 have yet to be named.

An analysis by Politico's Avi Zenilman shows that Clinton's lead in superdelegates has shrunk by about 60 in the past month. And it found Clinton is roughly tied among House members, senators and governors - the party's most powerful elite.

Clinton had not announced a new superdelegate commitment since the March 4 primaries, until the drought was broken recently by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) and West Virginia committeeman Pat Maroney.

Clintonistas continue to talk tough. Phil Singer, the Clinton campaign's deputy communications director, told reporters on a conference call Friday that the Obama campaign "is in hot water" and is "seeing the ground shift away from them."

Mark Penn, the campaign's chief strategist, maintained that it's still "a hard-fought race between two potential nominees" and that other factors could come into play at the convention besides the latest delegate tally - "the popular vote, who will have won more delegates from primaries [as opposed to caucuses], who will be the stronger candidate against McCain."

But let's assume a best-case scenario for Clinton, one where she wins every remaining contest with 60 percent of the vote (an unlikely outcome since she has hit that level in only three states so far - her home state of New York, Rhode Island and Arkansas).

Even then, she would still be behind Obama in delegates.

There are 566 pledged delegates up for grabs in upcoming contests. Those delegates come from Pennsylvania (158), Guam (4) North Carolina (115), Indiana (72), West Virginia (28), Kentucky (51), Oregon (52), Puerto Rico (55), Montana (16) and South Dakota (15).

If Clinton won 60 percent of those delegates, she would get 340 delegates to Obama's 226. Under that scenario - and without revotes in Michigan and Florida - Obama would still lead in delegates by 1,632 to 1,589.

The only remote possibility of a win in delegates would come if revotes were held in Florida and Michigan - which, again, would take a political miracle. If Clinton won 60 percent of the delegates in both states, she would win 188 delegates and Obama would win 125. Clinton would then lead among pledged delegates, 1,777 to 1,757.

The other elephant in the room for Clinton is that Obama is almost certain to win North Carolina, with its high percentage of African-American voters, and also is seen as extremely strong in Oregon.

Harold Ickes, an icon of the Democratic Party who is Clinton's chief delegate strategist, points out that every previous forecast about this race has been faulty.

Asked about the Obama campaign's contention that it's mathematically impossible for Clinton to win, Ickes replied: "They can't count. At the end of it, even by the Obama campaign's prediction, neither candidate will have enough delegates to be nominated."

This is true, as a matter of math. But even the Clinton campaign's own best-case scenario has her finishing behind Obama when all the nominating contests are over.

"She will be close to him but certainly not equal to him in pledged delegates," a Clinton adviser said. "When you add the superdelegates on top of it, I'll think she'll still be behind him somewhat in total delegates - but very, very close."

The total gap is likely to be 75 to 110, the adviser said.

That means Clinton would need either some of those pledged delegates to switch their support - which technically they can do, though it would be unlikely - or for the white-dominated group of superdelegates to join forces with her to topple Obama.

To foster doubt about Obama, Clinton supporters are using a whisper and pressure campaign to make an 11th-hour argument to party insiders that he would be a weak candidate in November despite his superior standing at the moment.

"All she has left is the electability argument," a Democratic official said. "It's all wrapped around: Is there something that makes him ultimately unelectable?"

But the audience for that argument, the superdelegates, will not easily overturn the will of the party's voters. And in fact, a number of heavyweight Democrats are looking at the landscape and laying the groundwork to dissuade Clinton from trying to overturn the will of the party rank and file.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has not endorsed either candidate, appears to be among them. She told Bloomberg Television that superdelegates should "respect for what has been said by the people." And she told ABC's "This Week" that it would be "harmful to the Democratic Party" if superdelegates overturn the outcome of elections.

A Democratic strategist said that given the unlikelihood of prevailing any other way, Clinton now must "scare" superdelegates "who basically just want to win."

The strategist said Clinton aides are now relying heavily on the controversy over Obama's retiring minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to sow new seeds of doubt.

"This issue is the first thing that's come along that I think is potentially fatal to his electability argument," the strategist said.

"They're looking ahead and saying: Is it possible this thing is just going to drip, drip, drip, drip - more video? Where does that leave us if he's our presumptive nominee and he's limping into the convention and the Republicans are just read to go on him, double-barreled?"

The strategist also said Clinton's agents are making more subtle pitches.

"I've heard people start to say: Have you looked at the vote in Ohio really carefully? See how that breaks down for him. What does that portend?" said the strategist. "Then they point to Pennsylvania: In electorally important battleground states, if he is essentially only carrying heavy African-American turnout in high-performing African-American districts and the Starbucks-sipping, Volvo-driving liberal elite, how does he carry a state like Pennsylvania?"

Her advisers say privately that the nominee will be clear by the end of June. At the same time, they recognize that the nominee probably is clear already.

What has to irk Clintons' aides is that they felt she might finally have him on the ropes, bruised badly by the Wright fight and wobbly in polls. But the bell rang long ago in the minds of too many voters.


Avi Zenilman contributed to this report.



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